(Interview conducted on August 3, 2005.)
Music4Games.Net: How does it feel to have your VG music performed live for an audience of actual genre fans?
Ben Houge: Of course, it's quite thrilling! I'm very honored to have been asked to participate in this unique, exciting event.
Music4Games.Net: Was your Arcanum score (Passage to Arcanum) a medley of cues from the game?
Ben Houge: It couldn't really be called a medley. I chose to spend a little more time presenting and developing just the main theme, rather than touching only briefly on several different ideas.
Music4Games.Net: How did you go about arranging the piece?
Ben Houge: In the game, the main Arcanum theme appears several times in various stages of completeness, so I selected three instances, stuck two of them together, overlaid a third, then added some new material that breaks it down even further. The resulting arrangement starts with just a string quartet, as in the game, and then gradually the music expands to a full string orchestra. One challenge was to adapt it from an equally voiced, four-part texture into five voices, which meant adding some new material for the basses. I really wanted to present this music from a new perspective, rather than just kind of slap a new coat of paint on it.
At one point the image of an architectural expansion came to mind. While I was working on the piece, I was also following Herzog & de Meuron's expansion to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, one of my favorite places on earth. So I would say I approached the arrangement architecturally.
Music4Games.Net: As an audio designer, too, were you able to simulate any sound effects using traditional orchestral instruments?
Ben Houge: No, I didn't attempt to incorporate any elements of the game's sound design in this arrangement. In my recent work, my responsibility has been to ensure that the whole game as a final product sounds good, and I've come to view the overall audio design (including music) as one big composition, an interdependent network in which each element supports the others. I tend to think of music and sound design as the same thing, since they deal in the same currency: organized vibrations in the air. I just have to find the best approach to yield the sound I need; sometimes that means taking a sledgehammer to a pumpkin, and sometimes bow to violin.
Music4Games.Net: Who or what were some key inspirations when you composed for Arcanum?
Ben Houge: There were a lot. I really dove into the string quartet repertoire while researching this project. The biggest inspiration was the Kronos Quartet's album Early Music, which presents pre-Renaissance works by such composers as Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, and Perotin alongside more recent compositions by the likes of John Cage, Harry Partch, and Arvo Pärt. By scoring the game for string quartet, an ensemble that came into prominence in the late 18th century, but drawing from the modes, textures, and contours of early music, I attempted to reflect the anachronism of Arcanum's central conflict: an industrial revolution in a fantasy world of dwarves and elves.
Music4Games.Net: How was the music production experience of Arcanum unlike your previous game projects?
Ben Houge: It was the first time I actually got to rent a studio (Studio X in Seattle) and hire out-of-house musicians, and it was a fantastic experience. Previously at Sierra I had often overdubbed live musicians from our in-house stable (including Mark Seibert on guitar, and Al Lowe on sax) over electronically-generated accompaniments. I've got to say, I think the Arcanum soundtrack demonstrated a substantial improvement in production values over my previous work as a result of the all-acoustic approach.
Music4Games.Net: Away from Arcanum, have you composed much string ensemble music?
Ben Houge: A bit. I've done a piece for choir with string ensemble accompaniment, and I've employed string instruments in mixed chamber ensemble works, such as Mobile 1, which was premiered last year by the Ensemble Sorelle in Seattle.
Music4Games.Net: Chamber groups are fairly intimate during live performances; do you think that quality is diminished when that type of music accompanies action-oriented scenarios?
Ben Houge: I actually think the big, bombastic orchestra accompanying a battle sequence is a bit of a cliché. It's the easiest solution, the obvious one in many cases, but it's not necessarily the most effective. Chamber music is capable of an enormous range of expression, and volume and density of orchestration are not the same as intensity. Of course, these things need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but one thing I love about games is that we don't need to feel burdened by the history of cinematic convention.
Music4Games.Net: Since small ensembles work very well in cozy, personal, or "intellectual" settings, have you thought about scoring for documentaries or independent films?
Ben Houge: I used to think it would be fun to branch out from games to scoring other media, but I really don't think that way anymore. Games are really much more interesting to me, as an exciting new medium with lots of possibilities that is constantly reinventing itself. But as part of this evolution, I think we will be seeing more of the kind of aesthetic inquiry that is associated with independent cinema, and I would love to be involved in such projects.
Music4Games.Net: What first piqued your interest in music composition?
Ben Houge: Well, I've always been around music, singing in different choirs in school or church. I studied piano off and on, first with my mom, then starting regular lessons around sixth grade. I wrote my first pop songs about the same time, got my first synthesizer a few years later, and throughout high school, my career ambition was essentially to become a member of Depeche Mode. Fortunately, I came to the incorrect conclusion that the best way to accomplish this was to study classical music at a small liberal arts college, and somewhere in the course of my instruction, I realized that the impetus behind my pop songs was the same thing that drove the rest of the music I was studying. I've considered myself a composer ever since.
Music4Games.Net: Is there a period in music history that you are particularly fond of?
Ben Houge: I think the present is utterly fascinating, and it probably always has been. You can't read a history book to tell you what's going on; you have to live it and figure it out yourself.
Of historical eras, I really like the broad swath between Gregorian chant and the Baroque era, which often gets lumped together into the "early music" category. The historical "modern" era is also full of fun stuff. Lately I've been trying to catch up on the rich history of music in China.
Music4Games.Net: Do you have any particular method or style of composition that best represents you (overall) as a composer?
Ben Houge: I guess the thing that really interests me these days is indeterminacy, which is directly linked to my work in games, since games are an inherently indeterminate medium. I've explored indeterminacy in concert works as well as game scores, and I've been drawn to composers like John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and Christian Wolff who were pioneers in exploring non-linearity in their works.
In addition, I've been exploring real-time non-linearity in computers, since it's possible to build more complex interdependencies than with acoustic performers, which has led to an increasing interest in algorithmic processes and synthesis. In addition to my current project at Ubisoft, I'm working on a new, performance-oriented version of my composition Radiospace (developed in Max/MSP), which chops up and manipulates signals from a radio in real-time.
Music4Games.Net: What was it like working with cherished old-school composer, Mark Seibert?
Ben Houge: I've learned so much from Mark. He's actually my cousin-in-law (at the age of 5, I was the ring bearer in his wedding to my cousin Debbie). He gave me my earliest lessons in mixing and MIDI technology, in addition to showing me the game audio ropes. I've always looked up to him; he's a wonderful, talented, dedicated, intelligent, all-around-great guy!
Music4Games.Net: How do you view the growing popularity of non-linear scores used in games?
Ben Houge: It's the inevitable evolution of the medium. When games were new, we borrowed the language and techniques of film, just as film borrowed from ballet and theater in its infancy. But we've learned a lot about what makes games unique, and the implementation mechanism of game music is fundamentally different from that of films, so we're finding better, mature solutions and developing our own syntax and vocabulary.
Music4Games.Net: Has composing ecclesiastical music impacted the way you write for other media?
Ben Houge: Actually, it has, in some really interesting ways. I've become attuned to a kind of meditative thread throughout the history of sacred music, which is linked to the idea of stasis (and here I'm talking about music for ecclesiastical use, not works inspired by religious stories like Samson et Delila, L'Enfance du Christ, or El Niño). It's inward-looking, designed to foster a certain kind of state. It's essentially static, not moving towards a specific goal, and this is a critical idea in games, if a soundtrack is to be responsive to the input of the player (or other game systems). In between inputs, the music shouldn't invoke its own dramatic trajectory, since this may conflict with the emergent dramatic trajectory of the game play.
We can follow this meditative impetus from the earliest extant chants, through much of what I discussed above as "early music" (which is natural, given that the earliest music we have was preserved by the church), perhaps falling from prominence in the Classical and Romantic eras, but getting picked up again by composers like Olivier Messiaen (a rapturous Catholic mystic and ornithologist), Morton Feldman (who described elements of his piece Rothko Chapel as having "the ring of the synagogue"), and even John Cage (though it's probably hard to drawn the line between religion and philosophy in his practice of Zen Buddhism).
Music4Games.Net: Are there any current game composers that you admire?
Ben Houge: I think Nathan Grigg at Monolith is a mad genius; I love his game work, plus I'm very proud to have helped coax him into writing a string quartet, Init, for the Sound Currents concert series that some friends and I organized in Seattle. Of course, Guy Whitmore has been a pioneer in the field of adaptive music for games. Erik Aho and Boyd Post did great work on The Suffering, blending music and creative sound design. I particularly admire Nathan, Guy, and Erik for sharing their ideas about sound and organization with live audiences through performances with the Seattle School collective and the Sound Currents concerts.
I also really appreciate the Bungie guys, Marty O'Donnell, Jay Weinland, and C Paul Johnson; I make a point of mentioning the sound designers, too, since I think the coolest thing about Halo is the way in which the audio is conceived as a unified whole. That's really what makes a great-sounding game, and that's probably where the biggest challenge is in game audio.
Music4Games.Net: Have you considered singing more in your future projects?
Ben Houge: :D I haven't done much singing recently, so I'm getting a bit rusty. My current game project will probably not require my vocal services, but I do hope to use my voice at some live performances here in Shanghai this fall!
Music4Games.Net: Thanks for your time! We hope to hear more of your work in the future.
Ben Houge: Thanks very much!